The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense only got four possessions in the first half of Sunday's 2012 season-opener against the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium. And that was a good thing.
The Buccaneers scored on each of their first three drives in the opening half, and the fourth possession was conducted in "Victory Formation." Behind the precision passing of Josh Freeman and the hard-nosed running of rookie back Doug Martin, Tampa Bay set out on extended marches of 80 and 90 yards that chewed up a combined 16 minutes and helped the home team build a 13-0 lead before the break.
Freeman completed 12 of 14 passes for 122 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in the first half, and he also pitched in with 13 rushing yards. His six-yard strike to WR Mike Williams ended the Bucs' first drive of the season in the end zone, and he built two other scoring marches on the strength of a 33-yard completion to new TE Dallas Clark and a 21-yarder to new WR Vincent Jackson.
Connor Barth hit field goals of 36 and 20 yards to add to the Bucs' total. The second came at the end of a 90-yard drive that came within inches of another touchdown but was stopped by a jarring hit by Carolina LB Jon Beason at the goal line on a second-down Martin run.
Martin didn't get into the end zone there but he was an instant hit with the home crowd, running 10 times for 28 yards and catching two passes for 13 yards. The Bucs ran for 49 yards on 16 carries overall.
The Bucs' reconstructed defense under new Head Coach Greg Schiano was also impressive, holding dangerous Carolina QB Cam Newton to 112 yards on 12 of 17 passing and, perhaps more importantly, -1 rushing yards on two scrambles. CB Ronde Barber, making his 200th consecutive start at CB, an NFL record, also sacked Newton once near halftime to help stop a last-minute Carolina scoring threat. Rookies Lavonte David and Mark Barron made big hits for a rushing defense that allowed -1 yards on six attempts by the Panthers' running game.
The Bucs' defense started off with a nice play, as David blew up the blocking on an attempted sweep by RB DeAngelo Williams and LB Mason Foster dropped him for a loss of four. However, TE Greg Olsen slipped off the line on second down and got wide open for a 20-yard gain. DT Gerald McCoy made Williams' second run a loss, too, and on second-and-13 Barron's hit on Olsen knocked another potential completion away. The Bucs brought in a three-down-linemen, six-DB package for third-and-13 and the coverage by CB Eric Wright was perfect on an incompletion in WR Steve Smith's direction. Return man Sammie Stroughter was hit immediately on the end of a 47-yard punt and the Bucs' first drive thus started right at the 20.
The Bucs' first play from scrimmage was a pass, as Williams ran an out and Freeman hit him for a quick six-yard pick-up. Doug Martin's first official run in the NFL was a beauty, as he cut back at the line and then lowered his head to power through S Charles Godfrey for a first down. Another four-yard run by Martin and a five-yard dump-off to FB Erik Lorig made it third-and-one, which Freeman converted with a rugged sneak up the gut. Lorig got into the action again on a beautiful play-action rollout that got him into the open field for a gain of 15. The Doug Martin show then continued with an incredible leaping catch with a defender in his face for 11 yards and a nifty six-yard cut-back run. The Bucs faced a third-and-two at the Carolina 24 and Freeman found WR Vincent Jackson for seven yards after getting a key block from RB D.J. Ware. A misdirection pitch to Martin on the ensuing play found the corner for a gain of 11 and a first down at the six. On the next play, Freeman enjoyed a well-formed pocket, allowing Williams to slip into the back middle of the end zone for a simple six-yard TD dart.
Koenen bombed another kickoff off the stadium back wall and the Panthers came back out at their own 20. David made the stop on a first-down run by Mike Tolbert and a second-down catch by Olson, the latter a textbook tackle in the open field. On third-and-four, Barber blitzed and leapt at the line to bat away Newton's pass and force a punt. On the kick, CB Captain Munnerlyn hit Stroughter as he tried to make a fair catch, resulting in a 15-yard penalty as well as uncomfortable memories of Munnerlyn doing the same thing to Clifton Smith three years ago. Smith got a concussion on that play but Stroughter got up quickly.
The penalty on Munnerlyn put the ball directly on the midfield line and on the next play Freeman found Clark on the right sideline for a 33-yard catch-and-run. The drive stalled there but K Connor Barth came in to calmly nail a 36-yard field goal and make it 10-0 in the home team's favor.
Another touchback by Koenen meant another drive opening at the 20, though Newton started this one with a 10-yard strike to WR Louis Murphy. A five-yard pass to Williams on the next play brought the first quarter to an end. Two plays into the second quarter, Barber dropped Tolbert for a loss of six on a failed screen pass, but Newton answered with a sideline completion to Smith. Smith broke one tackle and found his way down the sideline for a 31-yard gain to the Bucs' 35. Newton tried to run on an apparent busted play two snaps later but was swarmed by a half-dozen tackles for a loss of five. The Bucs blitzed on third-and-13 and that prompted Newton to try Smith again on a deep ball down the sideline, but this time Wright had perfect coverage and the Panthers had to punt again.
Stroughter fair caught the kick at the Bucs' eight. An incompletion in Jackson's direction and Blount's first run, a four-yarder, made it third-and-six. Williams made an impressive falling catch short of the sticks on third down but a pass interference penalty on CB Chris Gamble kept the drive alive. Blount burrowed for another three yards and Jackson drew another pass-interference call on CB Josh Norman on a deep ball down the left sideline. Now at the Tampa Bay 45, Freeman dropped a pass off to Blount, who made a nice spinning catch and then leaped over Godfrey, all in the service of a two-yard gain. Two plays later, on third-and-seven, Freeman stepped up to buy time and found Jackson open in the middle of the field for a gain of 21. Freeman kept it himself when the next play broke down and spun off one tackler in the open field to get 12 more to the Carolina 19. Jackson's next catch produced 15 yards and a first down at the four, helped by a push-the-pile hit by G Carl Nicks, who hustled down the field to help out. Martin just missed getting it in on a run up the middle on first down, and an incredible goal-line hit by LB Jon Beason just barely denied him on second down. The Bucs tried a play-action rollout play but the Panthers were all over it and Lorig's catch lost a yard. Barth came in to make it 13-0 with a 20-yard shot.
Newton looked to Panthers on the first two plays of the next drive and got him right down the sideline both times for a total of 27 yards to get close to midfield. The Buccaneers challenged the second of those plays but it was upheld. On the next play, DT Gerald McCoy appeared to have Newton sacked, and even though Newton managed to get off a sideways pass to Tolbert the play still lost six yards as the two-minute warning arrived. After a false start made it second-and-21, Newton scrambled but was caught in the open field by Foster, who kept him to a four-yard gain. Newton had tons of time to throw on thrd-and-17 and found WR Brandon LaFell over the middle for just enough to move the sticks. Two plays later, Barber chased Newton out of bounds for a two-yard sacks, and the Panthers then committed a false start to make it third-and-11 at the Bucs' 42 with 36 seconds left in the half. McCoy broke immediately through the line on third down to put Newton on the run again and his desperation heave downfield was nearly intercepted by S Ahmad Black.